Was there something specific that inspired you to write this book or was it something that you knew you always wanted to do?
When I came to live in England, I realised my childhood had been very different from that of most of the people I came across. My studies in sociology also made me extremely aware of the importance of stability in family life. The idea of writing about it was partly triggered by a Cambridge lecturer. He seemed so impressed about my early life that he suggested I should write a book about it, commenting that it would make a change from all the usual memoirs of well-known people who seem to resort to memoir writing from positions of privilege. The suggestion stayed in my mind and when I started attending writing classes I received very good feedback on my efforts. I was also spurred on by Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes , which contained many echoes of my own life. I thought it would be interesting to record similar themes from a female perspective.
Did the process of writing bring back memories that had remained buried for many years?
Writing about one’s family is always difficult, especially when writing about the less attractive aspects. Family members often have different perspectives on their early lives. My sister and one of my brothers are okay about me writing this book – as far as they are interested – but my younger brother has reservations and thinks I am doing my parents a disservice. He hates the idea of washing the family’s dirty linen in public. The real difficulty was in trying to paint a fair and accurate picture of my father, for whom I always had a great affection despite his flaws. Perhaps, had he not been alcoholic and had he taken more responsibility for his large family, our lives might have been less deprived. I would never have published this during my parents’ lifetimes. In a way I have attempted not to denigrate family members, and throughout have always wanted the reader to know that we were a product of a society and an environment in which many families strived hard to survive.
Memories were resurrected during the writing and I was always surprised at how the particular events unfolded themselves as I wrote. I cried many tears as I recalled various sad events, but was also reduced to laughter at some of the humour I managed to convey. This memoir flowed out of me almost of its own accord. Memories less well-defined nibbled at the edge of my consciousness and once I started writing they became clearer.
How different is the Dublin of today to the Dublin of your childhood?
Dublin and indeed Ireland is another country from the one I knew as a child. Growing affluence and the loosening of the hold of the catholic church have left their marks. It is now a modern city with little of the poverty and deprivation that we experienced. In the circles in which we moved, everyone was poor –– no one was well-fed or dressed. Married women churned out unplanned (and in many cases unwanted) children almost annually. The unemployment rate was high with little in the way of state-provided safety nets. There was a culture of heavy drinking, especially amongst males and wife beating was common. Married women were baby-producing machines, and their acceptance of their lot – for the most part – went unquestioned. If they found any solace at all it would have been in their strong catholic faith.
The lives of working and non-working families today bears no comparison life 50 years ago. The state now steps in to help where there is no father, or a neglectful father. This applies in Ireland as well. Birth control has had enormous impact in improving the lives of women, albeit that this was somewhat delayed in Ireland. Children are now protected from the worst ravages of poverty and poor parenting. Changing attitudes also makes it easier for women: they are neither forced by the church nor state to live with abusing partners and divorce and separation is now a way out. The clergy had enormous influence on everyday family life: there were no situations were divorce or separation would be sanctioned. Faith in God was paramount and burdens were expected to be shouldered through prayer and religious devotion.
Healthcare was a different story when you were little, did you expect things to advance so much?
Healthcare was sparse in the old days and the poor depended, for the most part, on charitable institutions for any sort of relief. There was a base line where health care needs were met by the state but nothing like the systems of health care that now exist. My mother bore three handicapped children because of a condition caused by my father’s venereal disease. This couldn’t happen today where VD is treatable and pregnancies monitored. Indeed, had there been the service which exist today it is possible that there might have been different outcomes for my three sisters and the early deaths of the two youngest might have been avoided. Saying that, I have to concede that as children we were inoculated against polio and other afflictions which were common then.
Dublin has a strong literary tradition, who were you inspired by?
Hard to say who ‘inspired’ me but I was always aware that we Irish have the gift of the gab. I did once – as an adult on holiday in Cork – manage to kiss the Blarney Stone! I was always a pretty avid reader and took a special interest in Irish writers: Brendan Behan and latterly Roddy Doyle and Ann Enright were great influences. John Mcgahern, Colm Tobin and Sebastian Barry are great favourites as well. However, my favourite Dublin writer was James Joyce, I adore his book of short stories Dubliners and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Whilst I have read Ulysses in the past, I cannot claim to have made much sense of it, but the early bits wandering around the north Dublin places I knew so well, always had a deep resonance for me.
What advice would you give someone thinking of writing their memoirs?
There must be a story to tell and characters must be brought to life – no holds barred. Write honestly but be aware that it’s your own impressions and perspective. Others in the family may think differently and be opposed to a ‘warts and all’ account. But be brave write your own truth and dress it up in dramatic form to keep your reader interested. Be careful not to identify real people by changing names and be careful not to libel anyone. I’ve had to stay true to my own version of our family despite some opposition. Bear in mind that other family members will have a different reality, a different view of events, motives and reasons.
Have you found writing groups and classes helpful? If so, how?
Writing classes were very important in helping my tell to tell my story. I received lots of help and encouragement, and was made to feel that I had something of value to offer. Writing skills can be honed and comments and critiques are most important to the aspiring writer. The important thing is to find a ‘voice’: it should be brought to life and not be written as a sociological exposition or undressed facts. Your story should be more than a cold and unemotional a chain of events. In order to avoid that, I chose to wrote mine from the viewpoint of a naive uneducated child and young adult.
What’s your favourite place in Dublin?
My favourite places have to be the areas around north Dublin and in particular O’Connell Street, where I wandered a lot with my friends as a young teenager. I would stop and stare at the posh people going into the Gresham Hotel in O’Connell Street – not so posh now I realise (since I have stayed there a number of times during visits back to Dublin). I also loved Moore Street where I would go nearly every Saturday with my mother. Then it was a lively raucous market selling fruit,, fish, vegetables and other foodstuffs. I loved the atmosphere, which no longer exists. I have to say my geographical horizons were very limited in those days and I rarely travelled outside of the centre of Dublin.
How did you find the time to write?
I started writing when I changed to part-time work and would write for a few hours here and there. Once I retired, I had more time for writing and attending classes. Motivation for me often disappeared and I had to force myself to get back to the computer. Once there, I would write and edit for long periods but there were many fallow periods when I couldn’t bring myself to the back on the horse, so to speak.